Monday, September 13, 2010

Can a ginjo sake earn 100 points?

Though weary of debates about the 100-point scale, I discovered an interesting philosophical point after drinking about 60 sakes last week.

For wine-review geeks, an ongoing debate about ratings of any kind is this: Should ratings be absolute, in which all wines are measured against all other wines? Or should they be relative, in which case the best Beaujolais -- or the best White Zinfandel -- in the world should get 100 points?

It's an interesting debate to apply to sake because daiginjos are, literally, more refined than other sakes. So should the world's best nigori sake (the sake equivalent of White Zinfandel) rate 100 points, even if it's not as good as a good daiginjo?

It's something worth arguing about over a long sake-drenched dinner with other beverage geeks. But the ginjo sakes below were all rated on an absolute scale under the tasting conditions you see above at this year's Joy of Sake (That's Vinography's Alder Yarrow in the white shirt with the black strap, trying to taste all 187 sakes.)

Joy of Sake is maddening because it's the only big sake-tasting event of the year in San Francisco, so whatever I choose to taste means ignoring everything else, possibly until next fall.

The most popular are the most expensive -- the daiginjos. I have elbowed my way across those tables in previous years. But this year I decided to stick to the more affordable, literally less refined ginjo sakes for two reasons:

* They're what I'm most likely to order, both for value and because junmai ginjos tend to be the most wine-like of sakes

* The crowd was all at the daiginjos. I like tasting without a crowd.

Understand that ginjo sakes are not cheap or unrefined. At least 40% of the outside of the rice must be polished away, thus eliminating impurities -- but whenever you throw away 40% of the raw material, you're making a premium product. Daiginjo (literally, "big ginjo") must have 50% polished away. I'm not going to knock daiginjos; these are some of the best sakes in the world. But many times I like the ginjos better.

So here are my favorites from 52 tasted, along with (the prefecture in parentheses), ratings on the absolute 100-point scale, and a few hastily scribbled tasting notes.

And to answer my own question -- yes, I think a ginjo sake could earn 100 points, because I have had some that I thought were among the very best sakes I've ever had. But I just wasn't feeling that generous last week.

A 100-point White Zinfandel, though, mmm, I don't think so. Though I'd like to see somebody prove me wrong.

Fukuchitose "Toku" (Fukui) 97 Very aromatic with nectarine and sea salt and floral notes. Almost achingly salty on the finish; cries out for sashimi

Yuki no Bosha "Hiden Yamahai" (Akita) 94 Very smooth, with peaches and cream character

Manabito Kimoto Junmai Ginjo (Akita) 93 Initially salty, then turns creamy on the smooth finish

Tenju Junmai Ginjo (Akita) 93 Clementine, peach, lime and cream. Very wine-like; a great substitute for Riesling.

Hamachidori "Ginginashikomi" Junmai Ginjo (Iwate) 93 Aromatic, with floral notes and white peach. Good acidity.

Kaika "Kurobin" Junmai Ginjo (Tochigi) 92 Green apple and coriander

Nabeshima Junmai Ginjo (Saga) 92 Complex, with cedar, mild citrus and cream

Imayotsukasa "Meikai" (Niigata) 92 Clean profile with nice cream and peach flavors

Yuki no Bosha Junmai Ginjo (Akita) 91 Intense, comes at you in layers. Very long finish

Manotsuru Junmai Ginjo (Niigata) 91 Very creamy, slightly sweet, long finish

Yuki no Bosha Yamahai Junmai (Akita) 91 Complex, intense, fruit and floral notes. Slightly hot on long finish.

Toko "Dewanosato" Junmai Ginjo Genshu (Yamagata) 91 Creamy, spreads on the palate, long finish

Okunomatsu "Sakura Ginjo" (Fukushima) 91 Intense peach and lime flavors

Dewazakura "Dewasansan" Junmai Ginjo (Yamagata) 91 Green apple, clean and refreshing

"Yuga" Junmai Ginjo (Chiba) 90 Sweet, creamy, white chocolate, long finish

Shutendoji "Oni" (Kyoto) 90 Slightly sweet, Alpha-Bits, long finish

Okunomatsu "Adatara Ginjo" (Fukushima) 90 Slightly herbal with nice white peach flavor

Mizubasho Ginjoshu (Gunma) 90 Creamy and gentle

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